A place for psychotherapy in sport?

There is no doubt about it, sport is lucrative business. For a country like the UK it also plays a huge part in our Nation’s identity. One only has to look at sporting participation data since the 2012 Olympics, the recent media coverage of the Commonwealth Games, and (much to my own delight) the crowds lining the roads for the 2014 Tour de France when it visited Yorkshire this July.

A lot of investment is made in improving athletic performance – time and money. British Cycling have coined the phrase ‘marginal gains’ to describe a process by which they leave no stone unturned to eek out the final percentages in an athlete’s capability. One example is how British cyclists have the same mattress transported to competition and training camps: the same bed = improved sleep quality. Every little effort made to enhance recovery time. And now these efforts aren’t being limited to the physiological or the nutritional – the two traditional inputs from sport science. Top class sport is turning more and more to an understanding of the mind. Most sporting governing bodies in the UK work with a team of sport psychologists now, and many individual athletes have a ‘head coach’ of some description or another. One of the most famous is Dr Steve Peters, brought in to work with British Cycling athletes over 10 years ago. What was headline grabbing about his appointment at the time was his being (not a sport psychologist but rather) a psychiatrist. Given the success of British Cycling (Vicky Pendleton, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy are but a few who have worked with the man behind ‘managing the inner chimp‘) Maybe it IS ‘good to talk’?

Certainly this has been my own experience – both as an athlete and then as a coach of athletes. During my six year career as a cyclist I worked with a professional who helped me to balance the various demands placed upon me. OK, I was not in the same realm as Pendleton, Wiggins and Hoy, but I would call myself a ‘semi-pro’ (as I moved to part-time work to pursue my cycling for 2 years). Balancing my training whilst still working was one pressure; wanting to be successful on the bike and in my academic career another; maintaining a relationship with a partner, friends and family but also fulfilling a training plan sometimes 25h+ per week – having someone who I could share how hard it got sometimes helped… a lot.

And it was this period that inspired me to take up coaching. Knowing the benefits of receiving help, I wanted to become the helper. Within a few months of shifting in to the role of cycling coach, it began to dawn on me that what really helped my athletes wasn’t the prescriptions of training power output or the calculations of optimal race pace from laboratory testing, rather it was my time, my presence, my listening to them – as Carl Rogers might describe it, it was simply ‘being a person’. I was doing quite naturally what I was to learn later in my therapeutic training – and this forged incredibly trusting 1-2-1 relationships with my athletes.

I’ve worked with a wide range of abilities: from novice ‘weekend warriors’ hoping to complete their first race, to full-time professionals aiming for selection at International level. What these athletes share is an immense motivation to succeed. In my experience, we can categorise this motivation in two camps:

  • those that love the sport they compete in and simply want to express their athletic potential;
  • those who need to achieve their targets by way of proving themselves (to themselves, to others)

This was reinforced when I watched the recent BBC documentary “How to win gold”. Sir Chris Hoy described his own path to Gold as well as interviewing several other top-step Olympians. I was struck by the extremes between rower Sir Steve Redgrave and cyclist Graham Obree. Redgrave apparently in the ‘want’ camp explained “you have to love what you do, or you won’t have the desire to do everything for the win”; Obree (notably a survivor of two suicide attempts) on the other hand described his motivation as a “fear of regret”. He went on to explain one of his World Championship wins as being down to his “willingness to die for it” – and there was not a sense of drama there, he deeply believed he was pushing his body to the extremes. Obree was describing a phenomenon I have seen many times not only in athletes but also in many high achievers: the need to accomplish to fill a void, to simply to feel they have a right to exist.

There will always be times when even the most passionate athlete gets jaded and the training life can feel like a chore. But for those athletes who are needing success, sporting accomplishment is a way to make up for something they feel they don’t have. Celebrated psychiatrist C.G. Jung would call this part of a shadow-side: certainly there is an inner struggle. Sir Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong – two athletes with estranged paternal relationships) are but two examples of success underpinned by a ‘fight with inner demons’ often cited in the media and sport psychology literature. Athletes with this inner struggle are those that will only be satiated by a win – they are fixated on the outcome. Those athletes with a healthier sense of self tend to be more engaged in the process – they are just as happy with a personal best performance even if that still means defeat.

Happy person but limited athlete?

This became a conundrum for me as a coach. When working with cyclists I was very aware of the inner struggles: and it would make me so sad to witness it. Yet I also knew it was the fuel keeping the desire to excel burning. So the question is – do athletes need an inner demon in order to reach the highest echelons of performance? Is a fight for survival critical? Whilst I would never advocate stirring up someone’s inner battle (the use of pre-race talk along the lines of “come on, prove them wrong”akin to kicking someone in the shins to make them angry) it begs the question as to whether performance is prioritised over psychological health. Or to put it another way, would the ‘fully actualised” human have the need to enter sport and seek every competitive gain?

body armourI don’t claim to have a definitive answer, only one based on my experience. Where I have witnessed the inner demon as fuel, there was also a high incidence of self-sabotage. In other words, yes the need to perform well was a potent driver; but it was very often the cause of performance collapse at just the wrong moment. As if the ‘shadow-side’ was invested in staying intact. Our histories may be ones we fight against, but on some level there is comfort in the familiarity they offer. To give an example, we may have an athlete who keeps getting injured. Whether we consider Wilhelm Reich’s ideas on ‘body armour’, or Merleau-Ponty’s on ‘the lived body’ there is little doubt in Western psychotherapeutic theory that we carry emotional memory in the body. We probably all have some awareness of where we carry stress in our bodies – for me its in the upper back just under my shoulder blades: if I do too much cycling when stressed and anxious, I get referred pain in my lower back. An athlete with chronic psychological ‘blocks’ which are held in the body may well experience recurrent episodes of injury – and they will often appear at periods in the training cycle where physical form is looking good…surprise surprise, JUST when the expectations to succeed are mounting!

Can counselling and psychotherapy help athletes?

I believe yes, it can: if the word ‘help’ is placed in context of more harmonious relationships, decreased stress and depression, overall improved mental well-being resulting in longevity in sport. I have seen how mental issues restrict and constrict the performing athlete. It is wonderful to watch an athlete perform without the heavy burden of psychological ‘chains’.Psychological chains are a heavy burden, and that weight can slow us down – quite literally if “the lived body” makes us rigid (speaking as a physiologist now, we have to consider the oxygen cost that has and how it affects an athlete’s economy of movement?)

I often cite some of my most profound successes as a cycling coach were when I helped an athlete break free of the chains – even if this meant them leaving the sport. I love sport; it has been in my life ALL my life. I have made long-lasting friendships and learned a lot about my self through it. It has many amazing benefits socially and psychologically. However, I don’t believe in the pursuit of excellence we should encourage any kind of emotional imbalance – sport is JUST sport after all.

I bring together my experiences as a competitive athlete, my work as coach to all levels of cyclists, and my therapeutic training in my counselling work with athletesPlease contact me to find out more.

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